Last week one of my least favourite British tabloids was yet again inflaming the debate about immigration. This time using images of the refugees on Kos along side those of holiday makers.
With headlines of ‘Holidaymaker Misery’ and ‘Chaos on Kos’. None of this was of any help to Greece, struggling financially to meet the needs of those already here, or the tourist industry it relies on.
Ironically if the tourist industry here were thriving there would be jobs for a large number of those here and the refugees.
Some are reported as wanting to head to Northern Europe where they believe they can have a better life. Too often it’s a story of numbers, the numbers that are arriving, the numbers that want help, the numbers that die.
If the current situation in the Mediterranean is to be resolved then we should be asking different questions. Who are they? Where are they from? And why are they coming here? I’ve already given you my view of immigration, here’s a different one.
Elizabeth is one of those who really wants to stay and make a life here. Last week she invited me into her home and told me her story.
First a little bit of background. Elizabeth Zekarios Abraha is 26 and from Eritrea. A country that has been independent since 1993 and according to the BBC:
In recent years Eritrea has become one of the world’s most secretive countries. It doesn’t have any privately-owned indigenous media, and sits alongside North Korea in global media freedom rankings.
Elizabeth and her husband Daniel left their homes in Eritrea on January 31st. They were escaping a regime where conscription into national service last decades. Daniel, a civil engineer, had been conscripted for 14 years with no hope of an end to his service. According to The Human Rights Watch: Conscripts are often simply used as a form of slave labour, worked long hours, often locked up and physically abused.
Eritrea is not a country we know much about or hear much about, but last year 1 in 4 refugees heading across the Mediterranean into Greece and Italy came from Eritrea. There is a UN report due out in June this year, but investigators have been denied entry to the country. As The Times pointed out:
yesterday’s freedom fighters have become today’s despots. Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Libya’s late Colonel Gaddafi, Mr Afwerki is accused of turning the country into a giant prison.
The only choice for freedom to live their lives was for Elizabeth and Daniel to flee. In a country where travel is restricted they were serving in different locations. Each journey required a permit which were almost impossible to obtain.
Punishment in Eritrea is swift and certain. If you question the authority or break any rules you will go straight to jail. There are no courts and no form of justice. For many it is a good as a death sentence. Leaving the country was not an easy decision, once they left there would be no going back.
It took them 3 days to get into Sudan, arriving there on February 3rd. Their trip was organised through brokers. They made an initial payment in Eritrea and then paid along the way. They travelled through Sudan and South Sudan arriving in Uganda on February 15th so far much of the journey had been on foot.
In Uganda they paid another sum to another broker for flights and passports to take them to Turkey. The cost was $7,000 each. The brokers made promises from the start about the trip and how it would be organised. Once in Uganda things for them started to go wrong.
The day arrived and so did Elizabeth’s ticket and fake passport but there was nothing for Daniel. She left with the promise that he would follow her soon. Today he is still waiting in Uganda. The money he paid has disappeared, along with the ticket, passport and broker.
Elizabeth’s flight arrived in Turkey on April 14th. She’d left Uganda and her husband behind. Alone and heavily pregnant she headed to Istanbu. She was met at the airport and taken to a room where she stayed until the next step of her journey. Hoping that Daniel would arrive any moment.
Eventually they came to take her to the boat. First there was another fee to pay $3,800 then an all day bus trip. She has no idea exactly where they went only that they left Istanbul in the morning and where dropped in forests in the dark somewhere near the port of Maramaris.
They then waited again. More mini buses arrived crowded with people. At last they were taken to the boat. Elizabeth was expecting a ferry, a large ship, properly equipped for the journey. Instead they were all crammed into a small wooden boat.
The cabin built to hold about 30 people was crammed with nearly 100. On April 20th, after a journey of about 6 hours, the vessel broke apart on rocks off Zephyros beach. Locals rushed to help as the migrants struggled to get out of the water clinging to pieces of the boat. 3 people died trying to reach here that day including a child.
Elizabeth was rescued by Antonis a local man and taken straight to the main hospital in Rhodes.Where she gave birth on April 23rd, St George’s Day by caesarean to a healthy baby boy. He has been named Antonis Giorgious.
The local Red Cross and other charities have been wonderful helping Elizabeth and her son. A local expat Louise has been to visit constantly, organising donations of baby clothes, equipment and money and arranged our meeting.
At the moment Elizabeth is being housed by charity in Rhodes. But that charity will end any day now. She would like to stay here. She has recieved help and kindness from the local officials and will be granted asylum status. But this is Greece and there is no fund to help people like Elizabeth.
She has spoken to Daniel on the phone and he has seen pictures of his son. Daniel is still waiting in Uganda. Elizabeth hopes there is another way to get him here, the thought of him travelling by boat is a horrifying one.
One option will be for her to go to Athens where she can have a place in a shared room with mainly Syrian refugees. It would mean her relying on handouts from charities, waiting for paperwork to be completed and then probably heading to another country. There are no jobs in Athens.
An Orthodox Christian, Elizabeth has fallen in love with the island and the people here. Now she wants to find a job and place to live. Elizabeth does not want charity, she is an intelligent, educated woman, who worked as a chemical engineer in Eritrea. Now she wants to make a life for her family.
Unfortunately this is Greece and we know the economy is in crisis. There are not enough jobs for locals and there are reports of Greeks and refugees living on the streets in Athens.
I don’t know what the future will bring for Elizabeth and her son.But I do hope that soon they will be reunited as a family and be able to find somewhere safe to call home.
The governments of Europe need to come together to find a humanitarian answer, to find a way to help people like Elizabeth. People arriving on these islands and in Italy daily in their thousands. Something needs to be done today.